Wine and art are a most civilised mix

Artworks' Dominic Rodgers travelled to north-west Argentina, on the tropic of Capricorn, to meet wine-grower Donald Hess who blends business with art.

12 min read

Complexity is quite intimidating. It is both a revered and frustrating quality. In a world of “user experience”, in an increasingly mobile and digital existence, where convenience is king, in the mainstream at least, simplicity is the order of the day. And we are well settled into the information age where everything is accessible – easy to reach and understand.

As such, Bodega y Estancia Colomé would seem to be two dimensions too far away from being remotely interesting. In fact, it is both remote and extremely interesting.

On the one hand, Colomé is a combination of hospitality, winery and art gallery, as well as three separate entities in their own right, brought together by sharing one space. On the other, it is not only situated at least four hours’ four-wheel drive from the nearest airport, but also more than 10,000 feet above sea level.

While the destination is worth the journey, the journey is a destination in itself. From Aeropuerto Internacional de Salta Martín Miguel de Güemes, via a few detours through bumpy, barren Atacama desert roads, you wind through mountains, rivers, lush forest and expansive grasslands, all with stunning views towards the final ascent. Even the geography is complex.

This, however, is not something that bothers owner Donald Hess. In fact, Colomé is just one string on the Hess Family Estates’ bow – as if it wasn’t complicated enough.

How did such an ambitious project, mixing fine wine with contemporary art, get off the ground? Hess takes up the story:

It all started when I was growing up. My father was quite old when I was born, he was already 47, and when I was teenager I would ask him about his business. He would always tell me to focus on my school work and one day, when I was doing well at school, he would tell me about it. As I never really improved much at school, we never spoke about the business and sadly he passed away in Tangiers, when I was just 20 and in the second semester of a brewery engineering course in Munich. I left university straight away and went home to Bern with no idea what I inherited as his only son.

He had a sizeable vineyard in the French part of Switzerland and a small brewery in Bern, as well as a 68-room hotel in Tangiers, Morocco. The wine from our vineyard was really terrible and the 18 pubs we owned in Bern were obliged to buy it. They even used to make vinegar out of the wine as it was so bad. I decided to sell the vineyard after two years.

My father never had art at home. We had big empty white walls in our 700-year-old house, but my best friend’s father had a great collection at his home, which I really admired. One day I asked my father why we didn’t have any art like he did? He told me to look out of the window and said no artist in the world could create such a painting and even if they could you would still have to buy it. I told him that, while that might be true, when it was dark outside you could still look at a painting on the wall. He agreed, but said he could sit in a comfortable armchair with a good glass of red wine and paint his own imaginary painting. For once I was speechless and thought what a clever father I had. It took me more than 20 years to recognise that my father was not right.

After my father’s sudden death, I had to grow up fast and learn how to manage the brewery and the hotel in Tangiers. The brewery was relatively easy as we had some good employees and my main task was to improve the beer quality, which I succeeded in doing by hiring a young Swiss brewmaster, who had done the same course as me in Munich.

Art and wine have for me a deep connection

At the hotel in Tangiers, we had a fantastic long-serving manager, who was a Moroccan Jew. He fell in love with a French woman, which wasn’t an ideal match at the time as far as the authorities were concerned, and he was shot. He left on the next plane to France and I was now left with a Spanish bookkeeper, who did not speak any language I could speak. I knew nothing about running a hotel, nor how to handle business in newly independent Morocco.

Luckily, I looked into my father’s diary and saw that he regularly met two Moroccans for dinner. I called them both up and they explained that my father had helped them in difficult times and that they would help me. They became my mentors.

I would go to one of them one night and the other the next, asking questions about how to manage different bits of the hotel and solve different problems that came up. They were really amazing and helped me so much. With their help I was able to double the capacity of my father’s hotel and, with the growing tourism trade in Morocco, I was able to rent five other hotels over the next ten years.

We grew the hotel business quickly, employing 1,250 staff across the six hotels. We hired the best mangers from the best hotels in Morocco and they brought all their former clients, so we did very well. All the best hotels in Morocco were owned by King Mohammed V and later by his son King Hassan, who in particular disapproved of me taking his best managers and losing customers to us. My tactics soon caused me some big problems and, in 1977, I sold my hotel group to a Moroccan organisation that had close ties with the king.

In 1961, I had started the Valser mineral water spring from scratch, at first with a minority partner, but when he retired, I became the sole owner. Over 40 years we grew Valser water from nothing to 130 million bottles a year, becoming the largest Swiss mineral water company a year before we sold it to Coca-Cola in 2002.

Having sold my Moroccan hotels, I wanted to build on the Valser success and went to the United States looking to buy a mineral water spring over there. After three weeks visiting lots of springs, I conceded that I would never have the funds to build a new brand. It wasn’t working out at all and, while I was commiserating in a restaurant in the Napa Valley, I realised I was drinking the most delicious wine. I couldn’t believe the quality. So I decided to buy a vineyard instead, but knew nothing about making wine.

I travelled around for six weeks visiting several Californian vineyards and, whenever I saw people at work, I just asked them what they were doing and gradually learnt how to grow grapes. In 1978 I bought my first mostly unplanted vineyard on Mount Veeder in the Napa Valley and in 1983 started to sell the first small quantities of Hess Collection wines. I remember that the old winery we took over seemed far too large, so I decided that I would put an art museum there. Everybody laughed at me and thought I would be broke within six months.

The concept I always had was, as contemporary art is my hobby, I should show art to people visiting our wineries and not keep it in storage. That’s why I now have art museums at the wineries in Napa, California, at Paarl in South Africa and Bodega Colomé, here in Salta Province, Argentina.

Art and wine have for me a deep connection. Art is a very lonely and demanding skill; if you have an empty canvas, where will you make your first brush stroke and will it be in the right place? The same is true for the head winemaker, when he needs to blend all his different lots from different vineyards together into a great and balanced wine. Being a head winemaker or an artist both carry a heavy responsibility.

In 1996, I bought 50 per cent of the Glen Carlou winery in Cape Town, South Africa, to expand the wine business. In 2003, we purchased the other 50 per cent and expanded the vineyards as well as the winery to follow success in wine sales. Even though Cape Town wines are considered to be new world wines, the vineyards have been producing excellent wines for more than 350 years.

At 65 I took my first retirement from the Hess Holding Group, handing the operations to a chief executive who had been with us for 15 years. The board members suggested as a retirement project I look at opportunities in South America: Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. In Uruguay they were just growing Tannat grapes and I wasn’t interested in that. I was familiar with Mendoza in Argentina and the wines of Chile, and as the economy was more stable in Chile at the time, I looked there.

But I liked the warm and friendly culture in Argentina – the dos abrazos [two embraces] – and eventually my wife and I decided on north Argentina. We stayed in Cafayate in the Salta region, quite near Bolivia, and moved around looking for some good wineries. I asked some local people where to look and they suggested a place with fantastic Torrontes, but I was looking for red wine, not white. So I was recommended to look at Bodega Colomé.

I got to know the owner quite well over the course of two months and we negotiated for a long time. Finally, he decided he couldn’t sell. Colomé had been in his family for too long and he couldn’t let it go, which was understandable, but for me very disappointing.

Two years later I had been staying nearby in Cachi, where I had just started to plant a vineyard at an altitude of 8,530 feet (2,600 metres) above sea level, when I got a call from the Colomé lawyer. He told me Colomé was on the market and asked was I interested? I said, not as interested as I was two years ago. I went back to see my friend, the owner of Colomé, and he explained that he had very serious financial problems and asked me if I’d like to buy it now. I told him I would, but I wasn’t going to negotiate for two months again. We talked about the debt he’d got into since we last negotiated, and I said I’d make him an offer and he could think about it for five minutes. I offered him a fair price for his property and made sure he could keep his house in Salta. After a minute, he shook my hand and that was it; we’re still friends now.

I took about a weekend to draw up the rough concept, where the estancia would be, the vineyards, and later the winery and visitor centre. First we started to plant like mad. Now we have just short of 140 hectares (346 acres), just for the brand of Colomé. Then we have about the same for the Amalaya brand in Cafayate. While we planted the vines, we started the construction with a Salta building company. It was quite an exercise to lodge and feed 40 men.

My wife helped with the estancia, training employees for the hotel and restaurant, and training gardeners. When they saw me they would just do whatever I said and wouldn’t question me because I was the boss, but I wanted them to. My wife helped me bridge the gap.

They didn’t know about our lives and we didn’t know much about theirs. In the summer, as it gets light very early, I never questioned that they would start work at 7am. But when it was dark in the winter time they would still turn up at 7am. I knew they didn’t have alarm clocks or flashlights, so how did they know what time to get up? I asked them how do they see the trees in the dark? They all said they do not see them, but they feel the trees. I tried to feel the trees in darkness, but I walked head first straight into one. That’s when I realised they can do things we can’t do and we can do things they cannot, and therefore we are equals, who need each other.

Building the relationship with people working with me was so crucial. My wife was the key person who taught people how to reach high standards in so many different areas of hospitality.

I got along very well with a young engineer who understood how to deliver exceptionally high quality. His expertise was especially important when we built the James Turrell Museum. That just started from sketches because we had to construct the building especially for the light pieces [of art]. It’s very strange inside because it has rounded edges, so you don’t know where the walls begin and end.

James Turrell is the world expert in the art of light and space; the main thing is light, but the spaces are important too. He’s probably the number one, not just for me, ask artists and experts. He is a very interesting man; he actually studied mathematics in Los Angeles. He loves to fly and drive, and is fascinated by planes and motors. He always has several interns who want to learn about planes and motors. He now owns part of a small aeroplane factory.

His masterpiece will be the Roden Crater, it’s full of tunnels and inclusions of light coming in. It’s not finished yet, but I’ve seen it. I hope it will be finished in four or five years. That will be the top of the top.

It’s easy to understand why Hess is so enamoured by this project, indeed by the works of Turrell in general. Like his own projects, there are many complexities to overcome, but the end result is both simple and incredible at the same time.

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